There was a time when Ping Hu cried because he thought he’d never get to go to school.
Even at 10 years old, he’d never sat inside a classroom.
But today, the 20-year-old will be among 425 graduating Kokomo High School students.
Shawn Kenneth Chaung is the class valedictorian. Ting Zhou Jr. is salutatorian.
Hu’s graduating with an academic honors diploma — an achievement that once seemed impossible.
Hu was born in Beijing, China.
He had a congenital condition that left his wrists bent and prevented him from doing a lot of activities.
His birth parents left him at an orphanage when he was a baby. The staff there told Hu his parents didn’t want him because of his “ugly, useless” hands, he recalled.
Hu was often told that he would never attend school because he couldn’t write. Sometimes, those words were enough to make him cry, he said.
Hu knew that while he may be physically weak, he was always mentally strong. But he didn’t know how to get others to realize that, he said.
“For as long as I can recall, I was always labeled as a child with disabilities, forcing me to stay with those who could barely speak a word,” Hu wrote in a college admissions essay. “It was tough to express my feelings and my desire to go to school.”
By the time he was 7, the orphanage finally moved him in with all of the “normal” kids who were allowed to go to school, he said.
Hu said the new staff members noticed that he was “quite a brilliant child” who simply could not write as fast as the others. They petitioned the school to allow him to attend.
“The school did not like the sound of a student with a condition that could slow down the educational process and soon rejected the request,” he wrote.
The orphanage continued to petition the school every year, and finally, when Hu was 11, the principal agreed to let him in.
He started first grade that year. It was hard, he said, but he enjoyed learning how to read, write and draw.
Hu didn’t even finish an entire school year, though. It was cut short by an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
The school had to shut down early because people in the area were dying, Hu said.
A nurse was worried he had it, too. He had a red rash all over his back. The nurse said that was a telltale sign of SARS.
“I just broke into tears and had to be stuck in bed with others who had rashes and fevers,” he wrote.
Before the next school year started, though, Hu would get a second chance at life.
Weishang Hu and Tessa Vaughan finalized their adoption and brought Hu to the United States. He started a new life in Kokomo, a place he knew nothing about.
“It was exciting and scary at the same time,” Hu said. “I was excited to get out and have a family of my own.”
His first year in an American school was rough.
His parents weren’t even sure what grade he should be in. Because he didn’t speak any English, they couldn’t tell how much he already knew.
Though he had less than a year of schooling in China, Hu was enrolled in the fourth grade at Sycamore Elementary School.
“It was tough,” he said. “I couldn’t understand anything the teacher was saying.”
His English as a Second Language teacher would sit with him all day and look up words in the English-Chinese dictionary.
By the end of the year, he could read full novels at grade level. One day he and his classmates were taking turns reading parts of a short novel, he said.
When Hu finished reading, his teacher was “so happy to the point that she had to step out of the classroom as tears streamed down her face,” he said.
“That was when I realized what an amazing year I had,” he wrote.
Hu was determined to succeed. He said he spent hours on his own trying to learn English and catching up on everything he missed.
He said all he wanted to do was achieve great things in school. That became his entire focus.
It paid off.
By fifth grade, Hu was reading books to the younger children at school. He even mentored and translated for a new Chinese student.
In the next seven years, his list of accomplishments continued to grow.
He became a top chess player, learned to play the trumpet, was named an algebra student of the year, Spanish student of the month and chemistry student of the month, made the high honor roll several times and passed three Advanced Placement college courses.
Next year, he will study at Indiana University Bloomington. He hopes to forge a career in the medical field.
Dave Barnes, a teacher at the high school and director of communications for Kokomo-Center Schools, told Hu he’s proud of him.
“You’ve done great, kid,” he said.
Hu is quick to point out that his parents are the ones who deserve the credit.
“I’m forever thankful to my parents for giving me a second-chance opportunity for an education,” he said.
• Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, may be reached at 765-454-8585 or firstname.lastname@example.org.